Have you ever taught a dog a new skill or behaviour, only to find the lesson is forgotten the next day? Has your dog suddenly behaved unusually without any obvious cause? To understand why these common situations may occur, we must delve in to the mind of dogs and examine their beliefs.

What is a Belief?

Dogs and humans share a natural ability to generate ideas about the world they live in. We each learn from life experiences and take those thoughts with us wherever we go. It is this capacity for thought that has kept us safe and surviving, over the millennia.

Beliefs begin as an idea, generated in response to an event or stimulus. Whether those ideas prove to be factual or mere superstitions, is not important in the first instance. The idea will produce a response, in the form of a behaviour, and the outcome of the whole process dictates what we do next time. Cause and effect.

Sharing Beliefs

Where dogs and humans differ is the ability to quickly pass ideas on to others. When you or I form a belief, we can tell a friend, write it down, publish it in a book, post it on Facebook and share it, very quickly, with the rest of our species. We can then discuss the belief, listen to input of similar experiences, compare our stories and test new ideas.

We may find that our belief holds no water and in doing so, decide to adjust our behaviour before the experience happens again. If on the other hand, our belief turns out to be true, we can inform others, so they can benefit from our experience.

A dog’s experience, however, is often singular. Everything that happens, happens to them alone and there is little opportunity to communicate their beliefs to other dogs. Of course, dogs communicate and learn from one another, but a dog who has learned to sit before crossing a road cannot tell other dogs why he believes this to be a good thing.

Why Believe?

The thought-belief-behaviour process can be separated in to two useful categories. You can call them; positive and negative, reward and punishment, good and bad, love and hate – it doesn’t matter. All that matters is we understand, actions have consequences. Some consequences are beneficial, making life better in some way, while others are detrimental and make life worse in some way.

By following this system of thought, safety and enjoyment become more likely outcomes in the future. After all, who wants to feel sad and vulnerable more often?

Capturing Belief

You may have heard the term ‘capture’ used before. In positive training terms, it is used to describe the moment a reward or secondary reinforcer is given to the dog. The dog has correctly completed a request (sit, come, stay, etc.) and the trainer captures the behaviour by rewarding the very instant he got it right. Think of it like a camera, capturing a moment in time. We press a button, at the exact moment we want to keep, creating a permanent record for the future.

But what if our camera did more than just hold on to the image? What if it recorded the sound and scent of the nearby environment? What if it held on to every thought and emotion of the people in the picture? The texture of the ground, the taste of the air, the feeling of a friend squeezing in close to get in the picture – every conceivable sensory experience, captured for future reference? Pressing the button on this camera would be an awesome responsibility.

If you can imagine such a thing, you are beginning to understand the mental process of a dog learning about the world and generating beliefs.

Belief and Perception

So, you’ve decided to spend a little time coaching your dog. Today’s lesson is learning to sit when the doorbell rings. You pour yourself a morning coffee, get some delicious treats ready, and have a helpful assistant, outside, ready to ring the bell. The situation is set up for success – brilliant. In an ideal world, the doorbell rings, you say sit, the dog sits and you capture the behaviour with a treat. The exercise is repeated for 10 minutes and you’re sure he’s got it! You don’t even have to ask for a sit anymore, the bell is enough to tell the dog that sitting makes food appear. A resounding success!

Later that day, you decide to show the dog’s new skills off to the rest of the family. But something has gone wrong. You’re ringing the bell, only the dog isn’t sitting. What happened?

If we looked back at the images taken on the first camera, there would be no obvious reason, why the dog had ‘forgotten’ the day’s lesson. But viewed through our sensory camera, we begin to understand. The capture included more than the sound of a bell.

Nobody else was in the room, there was a smell of coffee, the sound of traffic in the foreground, it was daylight, his stomach was full, a feeling of excitement caused by a handful of treats, your helpful assistant had left a handbag in the room. The list could go on and on. For every sensory experience that existed in the morning, only a handful remain. What the dog perceived earlier in the day is no longer part of the world and what is still there, in combination with all the new experiences, has very little to do with the belief that was formed just a few hours ago.

Proof the Belief

The example of the doorbell may appear a little extreme, but it demonstrates the point. If we want to permanently capture the belief, we need to let the dog know, the only thing that matters is the sound of the bell. No matter; who is in the room, what smells there are, what time of day it is, or what noises are coming from the outside world, doorbell = sit.

Proofing (or generalising) is the act of coaching the dog in as many variations of the scenario as possible. By altering the environment in small increments, we can communicate to the dog that offering a sit to the sound of the doorbell is the only constant factor. By learning this way, the dog will be able to lose any superstitious beliefs about all the other stimuli and hold on to the fact that sitting for a bell is beneficial.

Belief and Aversion

Now that we understand what it takes to generate a belief, we can truly understand the dangers of using irresponsible ‘training methods’ such as aversion collars and sprays. The use of shock and prong collars, sadly, is still common place with many dog trainers. The idea behind such devices is to introduce a detrimental consequence to an action, thus preventing the behaviour from occurring again.

When we hold our sensory camera up to this method, the problem is obvious. What exactly was taking place in the dog’s mind at the instant the shock or pinch was delivered? If the intention of aversion collars the introduction of a fear response, what are they now afraid of? Can you imagine how many situations need to be introduced, in order to provide lasting associations and beliefs?

I recently read an account of a dog being trained in recall using a shock collar. The dog was enjoying a sniff of the ground, not at all concerned with his name being called and received a shock for doing so. Predictably, the dog became scared and ran away. Eventually the dog was found and now only receives force-free training and is doing well. But in that instant, what did the dog learn? Sniffing grass is going to get you hurt? Hearing your name being called could be dangerous? There is no scenario, where aversion collars produce useful beliefs.

Read our recent blog: Dog Training – Why Method Matters for more information on the psychological effects of aversion

Next time you are with your dog and the lesson begins, take notice of everything around you and pay close attention to their emotional state before capturing a behaviour. After all, the camera never lies!

Thank you for reading.

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